In high school, I gave a presentation on Cosmopolitan’s representation of men. I acknowledged the fact that the way Cosmo portrays and addresses women is problematic, but I believed it had been discussed to death and that everyone was already aware that it was potentially harmful, thus they did not allow it to harm them. I viewed Cosmo as pure fluff; no one actually allows a simple magazine to dictate their wardrobe, make-up routine, dating style, and diet. What I believed it did do, however, was cultivate the idea that it is acceptable for women to belittle and “bash” men.
The dating articles consistently discuss men’s inability to articulate their thoughts, clean up after themselves, commit to a relationship, relinquish their aggressive, dominant role or understand what women want in bed and they offer suggestions regarding how women can “fix” the men in their lives. In short, men are represented as indistinguishable from each other and stupid. This, in my eyes, was the real problem with Cosmo, and, consequentially, the mindset of young women. It perpetuated the idea that, as author Jilly Cooper once said, “the male is a domestic animal which, if treated with firmness, can be trained to do most things.”
I also never saw a problem with Barbie. In my mind, people were overreacting. I owned, and still do own, at least twenty Barbie dolls and three Ken dolls. I played with them until I was twelve years old. I was mildly offended that adults believed that young girls were so naive and malleable that their view of society and of themselves could be governed by a plastic doll. I also laughed at the adults; it was hilarious to me that they actually thought the most controversial aspect of Barbie was her unrealistic beauty and stereotypical femininity. They obviously had no idea what sort of promiscuous situations Barbie got herself into in the hands of ten year old girls.
As a miniature adult, Barbie allowed girls (and boys, I’m sure) to project their own sexual curiosity onto her and explore sexual activity and nudity with no real consequences. That was the secret of Barbie and, in my young mind, was what adults should have been worrying about. So what if she wasn’t realistic? So what if she was Caucasian and blonde? She had no influence on me; I used her merely to act out the ridiculous (and raunchy) stories of my childhood imagination.
I still believe that the man-bashing mindset is extremely problematic and I still do not think that Barbie had a huge impact on the way that I view myself, although I do think that being able to explore sexuality with her provided me with a more healthy view on sex (although more accurate genitalia would be nice – especially for Ken). On the other hand, I have made a personal discovery that shifts my view dramatically. I am a self-centred woman of privilege. Barbie did not affect me because she did not point out my flaws (or at least she didn’t until my breasts stop growing at approximately the same size as hers – and I mean the literal size of hers, not a scale model). She did not point out that I was different.
I am a thin and blonde Caucasian twenty-year-old, upper-middle-class University student in a heterosexual. Cosmo has nothing on me. I scoff at their dieting tips, I skip their fashion advice for the “plus sized” (read: size 12) women, I wonder who on Earth needs that many beauty products, and I laugh at their silly socializing and job interview tips. I eat what I want. I wear what I want, including bikinis, and yes, I (read: my parents) can afford it. I don’t have wrinkles (yet) or bad acne and my skin tone is not pale, olive, or chocolate, but “normal”. My hair has natural highlights. I have a concrete social network and I have the education that guarantees that I will find work, even in a recession. I am great because I have privilege.
The slogan “I am great because I choose to be” would have once resonated with me. I am full of ambition, and I intend to see that ambition through. I will succeed in my personal goals. This is partly because I have the drive to succeed. My accomplishments should not be disregarded; I deserve recognition, but I was born into privilege. Those of us who inhabit this world have to make a choice. We can pretend that Cosmo does not promote unhealthy views on sex, love, and beauty and that Barbie does not perpetuate traditional stereotypes of femininity and alienate millions of women. We can pretend that our successes solely belong to us and are not owed to capitalism and patriarchy. Or we can discover the world.